Jane Goodall: "It seems hard to believe it's been half a century. And yet it doesn't seem like yesterday, either."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010; HE03

Primatologist Jane Goodall began her groundbreaking research into chimpanzee behavior on July 14, 1960: 50 years ago tomorrow. She was a 26-year-old with no scientific experience or college degree. British authorities balked at the idea of having Goodall stay alone in the wilderness around Lake Tanganyika, in what is now Tanzania, so her mother went with her.

During Goodall's six-month sojourn in the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve, now Gombe National Park, Goodall saw a chimp strip leaves off twigs to fashion tools for fishing termites from a nest. Until then, scientists thought that humans were the only creatures that created and used tools. This was just the first of many Goodall discoveries that have redefined the relationship between humans and other animals.

In 1994, Goodall started the Lake Tanganyika Catchment Reforestation and Education (TACARE, pronounced "take care") project. It works with local communities to improve their people's lives -- by providing necessities from health care to lavatories -- while rehabilitating the environment with tree nurseries and better farming techniques. A U.N. Messenger of Peace and founder of the Arlington-based Jane Goodall Institute, Goodall spoke with us on the phone from Rome, where she was in the middle of a whirlwind travel schedule to mark the anniversary of her work.

-- Rachel Saslow

Does it feel like 50 years since you started your chimpanzee research?

It seems hard to believe it's been half a century. And yet it doesn't seem like yesterday, either, unless I'm actually there up on a peak or by a waterfall and I can capture how I felt back then.

And how was that?

That everything is so new and exciting and you never know what's going to happen. It was an amazing time of discovery and exploration and living a dream.

Was your mom with you for the full six months?

No, she came for four months and then the government decided that I might be crazy, but I was okay. She missed the great discovery of [chimpanzee] toolmaking and tool-using. I would have liked to share that with her. I could tell the Africans, but it wasn't that exciting to them.

Did you know immediately that you had made a major discovery?

I only knew because [biologist and naturalist] George Schaller was there just before, and he told me if I saw tool-using it would make the whole thing worthwhile.

When you first presented your research in the 1960s, some scientists accused you of anthropomorphizing chimpanzees because of the nature of your findings and because you assigned them names rather than numbers. Is there a danger in anthropomorphizing them?

The danger lies in the other direction. Of course, we can't attribute all human emotions and feelings to animals, that's ridiculous. If we're in doubt, we should give the animal the benefit of the doubt. They're continually surprising [to] people.

What advice would you give your 26-year-old self?

My mother used to say, "If you want something, you find a way to do it." That's what I tell all the kids when I meet them today.

How has Gombe changed since 1960?

It has totally changed. About in 1992, I flew over the entire area of Gombe and the surroundings and was utterly shocked to see how total the deforestation outside the tiny national park was. There were more people there than the land could support.

Aren't some of the people there as a result of your research? How do you feel about that?

It's quite disruptive, but it's a national park and the tourists need to come. It's all right if there's only a few of them. I was so spoiled -- I had the forests and the chimpanzees all to myself and now you go out and see a group of chimps and there's always a couple of tourists with a guide.

It's not an isolated place anymore. If we hadn't started the TACARE program, there would be no hope of the chimps' surviving. Because of TACARE, people have allowed trees to grow in as a buffer zone around the park.

How many chimps are left there compared to 50 years ago?

Around 100. There used to be 150 in three communities, so we lost one community. Mainly, they used to spend a lot of time out of the park and now there's no habitat outside. And refugees from the Congo settled there, and they eat chimps.

How often do you visit Gombe now?

I get there twice a year, but it's very brief, just a few days to visit the TACARE projects and the youth program Roots and Shoots.

Do you miss research?

I loved collecting and analyzing data. I can't do either now. I can make sure that Gombe goes on.

Some people still say, "Why are you spending so much time with youth?" I could kill myself trying to save chimps and forests, but if children don't grow up to be better stewards of the environment than we are, then what's the point?

What's some of the most exciting research coming out of there now?

What I'm most fascinated by is DNA analysis. We never used to know who fathers are, and now that we can, one can look for any bond between a male and his biological offspring. It's important if you're interested in heredity and how humans inherit character. Nature and nurture, questions like that.

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